Slamming Shut Open Access
Internet users are ready to switch to high-speed
broadband. But they may be getting a lot less than they bargained
for as regulatory changes create new Internet service monopolies.
by Arthur Stamoulis
Dollars and Sense magazine, September / October
Imagine typing in the web address for your favorite site-Alternet,
Working Families, even your kid's soccer league site-then having
to wait so long for it to appear that you give up. Or getting
a message on the screen reading, "The website you requested
is not included in your Internet package." Or finding out
that the organization you're looking for no longer maintains a
website. These disturbing possibilities may be a lot closer than
you think. Technological changes, coupled with deregulation, may
soon begin to radically limit diversity on the Internet. In fact,
the open, pluralistic, free-for-all character of today's Internet
could soon come to resemble something much more like cable TV,
with rising prices, limited access, and a monotonous diet of mostly
The 7,000 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are available
today could soon dwindle down to just two or three for any one
locality-your regional phone monopoly, your local cable monopoly,
and possibly some emerging form of satellite Internet. With that
degree of market control, these companies would be likely to raise
Internet rates astronomically. It's a trend that's already beginning.
This summer, AT&T Broadband raised rates for its fastest Internet
connection by as much as 80%, saying "there's nobody close
to us in offering that value of service." Only the lack of
competition in high-speed Internet services makes that statement
Worse, this lack of competition is likely to push up the cost
of having a web site; web hosting that now costs $40 or so a month
may soon be priced out of range for many small businesses and
nonprofits. And even if your favorite media makers do manage to
find the funds they need to pay for a website, the remaining ISPs
could still decide that they are not invited to have one-at least
not in an area of the Web any typical user will ever see.
NO MORE OPEN ACCESS
Many Internet users are ready to switch from their current,
dial-up Internet access to some form of what's known as broadband:
either DSL service, which is provided over the phone line by the
local phone company itself or by another provider such as Earthlink,
or a cable connection. Both forms of broadband offer certain advantages:
they're faster than dial-up service and they don't tie up the
phone line for ordinary calls. What many users don't know, however,
is that as they switch to broadband, they are stepping into an
Internet world that's dramatically different. Different not because
of any inherent feature of the new technologies-different, rather,
because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress
are currently overturning the public interest rules that have
encouraged the expansion of the Internet up until now.
Your telephone is currently characterized by the federal government
as a "telecommunications service." This designation
forces the phone companies to open their wires to any business
that wants to use them, a policy called "open access."
Open access is why you can choose between lots of long-distance
providers. It's also why you can choose between AOL, MSN, Jimmy's
Internet Shack, and thousands of other ISPs for dial-up Internet
access. The phone companies would like to use their monopoly ownership
of the phone wires to have monopoly control over phone-based Internet
services as well, but telecom regulations are in place that prevent
them from blocking out other companies.
Unfortunately, as the general shift from dial-up to broadband
Internet access gets underway, the FCC is moving in with a series
of actions that threatens to slam the door shut on open access.
This spring, the FCC decided to characterize high-speed cable
Internet connections-largely controlled by AOL-Time Warner, AT&T
Broadband, and other large corporate players-as an "information
service" rather than a "telecommunications service."
This designation frees cable broadband from telecom rules, giving
most cable companies complete say over which ISPs beyond themselves,
if any, will be allowed to provide Internet access over their
cable lines. Cable itself is a monopoly in most towns; so anyone
who signs up for cable Internet will typically have no choice
other than to use the cable company's own ISP.
Naturally, the telephone industry has cried foul, arguing
it is unfair for the FCC to allow cable Internet services to be
monopolies while phone-based Internet services are forced to remain
open. So the FCC is now seriously considering designating DSL
as an "information service," too. If that happens, you
wouldn't get to choose between different DSL providers without
the phone company's okay. It's likely that in many areas, there
would be only one DSL service provider-your regional phone monopoly.
These sorry changes are taking place under the leadership
of FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Bush appointee who has publicly
declared he has "no idea" what the public interest is,
does not believe it exists, and has gone so far as to call public-interest
regulations "the oppressor." As an FCC commissioner,
Powell voted to approve the AOL-Time Warner merger at a time when
his dad (and now Secretary of State) Colin was an AOL Board member
with over $15 million in stock. Clearly, there is some confusion
as to whom Michael Powell is using his position to serve.
"NEW AND IMPROVED" INTERNET?
Once broadband Internet access becomes the norm, the unfortunate
results of these FCC rulings will really kick into effect. Many
people don't realize it, but ISPs have the right to privilege-or
even block out-whatever content they choose. Even if your local
cable and phone companies decide not to ban competitive or critical
content, they could take steps to "ghettoize" it. By
controlling the browser software that works over their networks,
they could give priority placement to websites they partner with.
It's something some ISPs like AOL already do. Such control makes
it less and less likely that people surfing the Web will accidentally
stumble on any content that the ISPs haven't already decided they
Unfortunately, the control that broadband ISPs can exercise
over content won't end there. According to the Columbia Telecommunications
Corporation, a Maryland-based engineering consulting firm, the
cable companies already have the technical ability to manage the
speed at which different sites pop up on your screen once requested.
Sites that are owned by your ISP, or that pay it a little extra,
could get priority in how quickly their content reaches your computer.
Other sites would be given second- or third-class consideration.
The monopoly power being handed over to the cable and phone
companies will also encourage them to sell different levels of
Internet access, much like they do with cable television. For
one price, you could access only certain preapproved sites; for
a higher price, you could access a wider selection of sites; and
only for the highest price could you access the entire World Wide
Web. This is already the way :hat many wireless Internet packages
operate. It's clear that 'marginal" content that isn't associated
with e-commerce, big business, or government would have a hard
time making it into the first-tier, "basic" packages.
This isn't censorship, we'll be told. It's just that there is
only so much bandwidth to go around, and customers would rather
see CNN, the Disney Channel, and porn than poor production-quality,
The new "information services" designation is a
major victory for the cable industry, whose individual corporations
have been merging like crazy in recent years in an attempt to
solidify their power. Just this July, a handful of shareholders
with majority control at Comcast Corp. and AT&T Broadband
voted to merge in a deal that even Business Week labeled "a
perfect marriage of bad corporate governance and bad public policy."
If approved by regulators, the proposed company would control
the cable running into the homes of almost half of all U.S. cable
subscribers-enormous market power over the cable television industry,
but also over highspeed cable Internet.
The phone companies also stand to benefit from the new wave
of telecommunications deregulation. Seeing the cable industry's
success, the Baby Bells-Bell South, Qwest, SBC and Verizon-unleashed
their massive lobbying power to gain better control over DSL.
The Tauzin-Dingell bill (ironically titled the "Internet
Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act"), which gives these
companies the right to expand DSL without competition, more or
less breezed through the House last spring. In the Senate this
August, John McCain introduced a bill that, according to the telecom
industry journal Broadcasting & Cable, will allow all consumer
broadband suppliers to block out competing ISPs and will prevent
states and localities from having any say in the matter.
Major Internet players who don't own the cable or copper wire
running into consumers' homes are still trying to determine what
role they can play in this brave new world wide web. So far, companies
like Earthlink and Microsoft seem to be betting on the possibility
that they can form strategic partnerships with the cable, and
possibly phone, monopolies. The e-commerce giant Amazon.com has
adopted another strategy, at least at first glance. In July, the
company filed comments with the FCC, asking the government to
"impose on cable operators an open access requirement that
would permit multiple ISPs to provide consumers unfettered access
to all the information, products and services the Internet has
to offer." Whether Amazon actually means that or is just
jockeying for better bargaining position with the cable and phone
companies remains to be seen. At any rate, the influence of e-commerce
retailers in Washington pales in comparison with the long-standing,
well-connected industries they're up against.
Thankfully, a nascent movement for media democracy is now
on the rise. Public interest groups like the American Civil Liberties
Union, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Media Access Project,
and the Consumer Federation of America have been stepping up their
efforts to analyze America's media policies and to propose alternatives
that could help rescue the Internet's potential as a powerful
building block of participatory democracy. This fall, progressive
media critics including Sut Jhally, Jean Kilbourne, Robert McChesney
and Carrie McLaren are coming together to form a national organization,
the Action Coalition for Media Education, "that fosters democracy
and promotes an active, media-literate culture." The concerted
efforts of these educator activists should help to both highlight
and broaden public debate over our media system.
What's more, grassroots activists from around the United States
and beyond-many from the Independent Media Centers and the movement
against corporate globalization-are beginning to take on media
democracy as a core organizing issue. They've been holding educational
events in their local communities, and demonstrating outside the
FCC, the National Association of Broadcasters, and major media
corporations everywhere. While still small in numbers and power,
this movement has the potential to build public support for a
media revolution. According to the ACLU's report No Competition:
How Monopoly Control of the Internet Threatens Free Speech, "Only
if citizens demand action can the precious neutrality and independence
of the Internet be preserved." ~
To stay updated on the latest developments visit http:/lwww.
democraticmedia.org, http://www.mediachannel.org, and http://www.
Arthur Stamoulis is a media activist living in Philadelphia.
His writing on media-related subjects has been published by magazines,
websites and Independent Media Centers around the world. He can
be reached at email@example.com.
Control in the United States